Sunday, April 29, 2007


Thom's written more, but just a quick note to give you guys the results....
I did not pass. I'm disappointed, of course, but not devestated. I got lots of great feedback and know what I need to do for the next try. I think my assessors were more torn up than I was. Mike said it was one of his hardest decisions, so I was close. I'd rather pass with flying colors than squeak by and I know I will be that much better because I'll have to work hard for the next try, rather than resting on my laurels.

We're off the the Shetland Islands tomorrow, so no time to feel sorry for myself. Thanks everyone so much for your support! Don't quit reading just yet, there could be some good posts from the Shetlands!

From Thom

Triple Arch
Snack break
Ben Hope in the background - the northern most Monroe
Fish arch. Fisherman used to dry fish under this arch - too much rain - but not today!

Today started early, very early… Theresa, Jane, Jon… you would have been proud of me for getting up this early for kayaking! Admittedly Lynn is not here so getting out of bed early is easier. I was up at 5:00 AM and luring Jen out of bed at 5:30 with a cup of coffee (now that’s a miracle!) so we could get our planned final test day in.

Today we took a risk and decided to go ~1-1/2 hours west to Eilean Nan Ron and Neve Islands. It meant an early start because we had to get our assessor (Doug) back by 2 PM to meet with the other assessors give the thumbs up (or thumbs down) for each aspirant. So off we went into a cloudy and windy horizon.

Today was Jen’s day to demonstrate her teaching techniques and acumen, and our day to be stellar students. The launching spot was an easy protected beach at Skerray (a harbor so surf launch was not an issue). After warming up we did a small bit of playing in the local harbor reef rocks, then off to Neve Island for more serious rock gardening with swells and timing. After some play we rounded the exposed side of the island and were greeted with today’s full wind of ~15 mph gusting to 20 mph. Not so bad, however, the water was broken up with small swells and lots of chop. We had hoped to pass through an arch that is quite famous, however, the tide was too low causing a overfall that simply wasn’t navigable. Nonetheless, we had plenty of rocks to play in, one which Jake and Jen slid through smoothly, I sat in front of for some time (my inner voice saying ‘not today’) and chose to paddle round. Then we headed for Eilean Nan Ron, the larger of the two, islands we planned to circumnavigate for the day.

This required a ~1 mile crossing with following wind and swell off our right stern. We didn’t have to consider current as much today but nonetheless, Jake once again did a masterful job at researching tide times and current speeds (~1 to 2 knots). Oddly the current was running right to left when we started the crossing, then shifted form left to right in the middle of the channel. Slight adjustments made for a smooth crossing and with the wind and waves we had a bit of surfing fun as well.

Once we reached Eilean Nan Ron we paddled into a natural harbor and were introduced to a low natural arch which looked impassable but if you laid you paddle on your deck and used your hands on the roof rock it allowed you to slip through and voila you were in a small harbor pool with room enough for just our 5 kayaks. It was sweet. Then off to circumnavigate Eilean Nan Ron as we had a strict timetable to keep.

The exposed side of the island was a tall cliff of sedimentary rock and we hugged the cliff side riding the swells and addressing the wind. This island too had great caves (one we all paddled in together) and arches. Soon we turned the corner and dropped through a slot that passed along the west end of the island providing a calm paddle with yet another cave after which we stopped on a pebble for a stretch and a snack.

After the break we headed out for the crossing ferrying against the wind, along the coast and into our harbor of safety. Our assessors headed back for their session and we layed up to load the kayaks and have lunch.

Jen’s test results were close… but no go. According to the assessors she needs more work on multitasking with multiple students during a simultaneous session (apparently this is a big thing with BCU folks). Of course, Jake and I didn’t agree – but we didn’t get a vote. Jen is taking the results well and plans to come back ASAP to get this done. It is unlikely we would return to Thurso and much more unlikely that the weather would ever be this good again.

Jen may get logged on tonight and post or not. She is currently researching weather and ferries for the Shetland Islands. If the ducks fall in a row we have decided that we may never get this far north again and plan to head first across to the Orkney’s for a day then catch the overnight ferry to the Shetlands for a few days of paddling. We would be returning probably on Thursday allowing all of us to get to our obligations on Friday. If you don’t hear from us for a few days it’s because we can’t get an internet connection wherever we are. We will catch you up whenever we get connected.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Sunny But Wet Day

We had a great breakfast this morning and were off… well not at the crack of dawn (that’s about 4:30 AM) but at the Thurso Youth Hostel (BCU headquarters) before 9. Jaz (the BCU director for this event) did a short presentation regarding the structure for the day and we were given our instructor examinee assignments (Jake and I got Ian from Inverness). After some conferencing with each group off in corners by themselves it turned out we had all decided to head to Scirza and round Duncansby head (once again for Jake and I). Everyone had a laugh at that and off we went.

While some of us prepared to get on the water – others set up the shuttle to John O’Groats. After warm-ups and some orientation we were on the water heading up the North Sea coast. We stopped for a bit at a low rock outcrop to work on strokes and swells so Ian could get a sense of our paddling ability. Then we were on to the tidal race off Duncansby Head (been there / done that). After some consultation we chose to drop into the race today at a higher angle, then into the first eddy. Ian was very communicative and we discussed tidal race technique before jumping in.

The upper end of the race was running stronger today (~6-8 knots), felt more powerful, but was not as clean as yesterday. Nonetheless, we were having fun and cycled in and out several times before assessing our next move. We had all noticed a second race that looked like it had more potential but was further off the point beyond the immediate one that we had just played on. So we discussed the idea of ferrying through the first race to reach that outer race and the consequences if we failed to return back to tuck in behind the ‘Knee’. Satisfied we had secured a safe plan we set off.

Indeed the outer race was bigger and better formed. One of our concerns (certainly mine) was that there would be no eddy to drop into for a break. That was answered by a big boil eddy right smack in the middle of the race. Tired – just slip a bit to the side and float for a while with roaring water and waves on both sides of you. After playing for some while we were ready to drop backwards down the race ferrying back to the Knee eddy. The current through this section was strong enough to have buried a crab trap float completely underwater. Jake, who was leading, slipped into the eddy. And then…

You guessed it, Ian, our 5 star instructor examinee went over and failing to roll after sever tries did a wet exit. I was still faced into the race but Jake noticed Ian. At first Jake thought Ian was just testing us but within seconds decided to raise the alarm. Nigel (our assessor) who was above me in the race but faced into it took off like a bullet to begin the rescue as Jake dived in as well. I proceeded to turn my boat in the race and also headed straight towards Ian (as he was quickly floating off into the North Sea). The path took me straight into the roughest part of the race which I though I could power through. But alas the waves were very close to one another and very steep and my stern got sucked into a whirlpool pulling me off balance. I went into a high brace, however, was clearly loosing that battle as my boat continued to slip under. Sensing defeat I took a deep breath and tucked my paddle hoping to roll. That too was stymied as my boat then went sideways on the wave presenting me with the water motion preventing any effective role. My offside being weak a wet exit was my final move. Now we had two of four paddlers in the water racing off into the North Sea.

I oriented myself to my paddle and kayak (Lost another Tully hat), grabbed the whistle on my vest to notify the others I was in the water and blew it as loud as I could. I have now come to realize that nothing is very audible in a large tidal race. Concluding that I was for the moment on my own I decided a self rescue was called for so I flipped my boat, slipped up on the back (a Valley Avocet I had borrowed for the day thank goodness), layed low on the stern and started paddling across the race towards the eddy along the cliffs. By this time Jake had become aware of my predicament and once Ian was secured came to assist me with a T rescue. All in all, even though Ian and I were separated by ~200 feet we were in the water for less than 3 minutes. Boy was I glad to be in a dry suite today!

No worse for wear we slipped into a geo (a sort of Scottish slot canyon), reviewed the events of the past few minutes, patted ourselves on the back for a job well done and went off around the head to a smooth beach landing, lunch and studies of tides, currents, tow ropes and races. While we were there the tide was supposed to slack and change directions, however, the race never seemed to loose intensity as we observed it over a period of ~1 hour. After we re-launched Nigel paddled out to the race and to our amazement (Jake and I) the direction of the race had shifted directions 180degrees and was moving at full speed with no apparent slack time in between. There was wind (which had increased in intensity) against swell that helped with this shift – but still amazing.

After practicing landing on rocks (nice flat ones) in swell we then paddled off to John O’Groats and landed. Tomorrow we are hoping for Rabbit Islands ~1-1/2 hours west of Thurso. It will require an early start as the assessor needs to be back for wrap up by 2PM.

Sorry – no pictures today. My camera chip really did bite the big one and couldn’t even be reformatted. Jen wanted to keep her camera with her to take pictures of her students (But never pulled it out).

First day over! One more to go!

Thom is going to put up a proper post. I don't have a lot to say other than I had a really good day. I had fun, paddled in a beautiful place with a couple of great people, thoroughly enjoyed myself and my students seemed to as well. The day wasn't 100% perfect, but it was a really rewarding coaching day. One of my students, Sue (wouldn't you know it, Thom and Lynn paddled with her in Skye 2 years ago!!!!), began the day telling me that she'd lost her roll and I shouldn't be surprised if she swam. Just before we got off the water at the end of the day, she asked me to spot a roll and she banged it off beautifully - a sure sign that her head was in a really good place! So I know I did something right. But did I do ENOUGH right.? The assessor who accompanied me today isn't allowed to comment at all until the assessment is over. I have an entirely new assessor tomorrow and a whole new chance to screw things up. I just need to keep the energy up through tomorrow and then, regardless of the outcome, I'll feel good about the experience.

For those non-paddlers among you, "lost her roll" does NOT mean that she misplaced her sausage roll. It means that she once could Eskimo roll her kayak after a capsize, but recently has not been able to. This is a mental thing - fear and doubt cause you to do the wrong things and you fail. Her success today was really good for me!

Ok, off to get some sleep so we can do it again tomorrow!
Thanks so much for following our progress and checking in on us - it's nice to know you're there!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Some photos!

There are many caves and slots along this stretch of coast. Very impressive! The temperature in the sun was quite warm, but in these slots, you could see your breath. Terrific numbers of birds on the cliffs too: Guillimots, razor bills, shags (like cormorants), fulmar, and a few puffins. Grey seals are common too (but lower down).
You just can't tell how big this is - you really could fit a freight train in it!

This is the tidal race that Thom talks about. The tidal swing is still within the smaller part of its range and there's no wind. In other words, this is the smallest and friendliest one is likely to find it!
Sottish highland cows. Too cool.

Another post from Jake

Once again at the Royal Bar with the surfers, spread out in the corner table as usual, with a couple pints of Guiness and a ginger beer. I think I could get used to this kind of life.

Sticking to my quest to experience the local culture, I ordered ham and eggs with french fries for dinner. That's not at all what the meal was called on the menu but that IS what they brought me. Ham, eggs, and french-fries individually - not exotic - but together one one plate for dinner - now that's culture.

Our Stroma island circumnavigation yesterday was amazing. In one day we saw warm sunshine, glassy smooth water, sea caves, a pleasant nap on an island, abundant sea life, ocean swell crashing headlong into sheer cliffs, fast moving tidal currents, and boat flipping whirlpools (thank god my roll works in the North Atlantic too). It all combined to create one of the best days of paddling I've ever had. Most definitely a day I won't soon forget.

Today we had a short but fantastic day on the water as we took Thom out to let him get acquainted with his kayak and get a taste of the local waters. We were only out for two hours or so but around here that's all you need to have an unforgettable paddle. We launched again by Ronnie's house at Skirza and headed north to Duncansby Head exploring the lofty sea caves and "slot canyons" along the way. The tide race by "The Knee" as going strong when we arrived and we had a great time getting long rides on the smooth face of the front wave of the race. The play time ended too soon for me, but we had a lot to get done before the first day of the assessment tomorrow so we finally turned and ran with the tide over to Thom's waiting car at John O' Groats Hotel. I was reluctant to get off the water on such a beautiful day but the promise of a long hot shower at the B&B sounded great to me.

Only hours remaining until the beginning of the assessment and Jen seems ready, I think she's going to do great.

See you later,


Rounding Duncansby Head

Well I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is we are still alive and had a great run around Duncansby Head today. The bad news is that Jen’s camera lens was fogged over (from the inside) so was left in the van to hopefully dry out and my camera memory chip went sideways after taking pictures all day, loosing… well everything. We promise to try again tomorrow. Today I’ll try to make up for the lost photos with words.

Our paddling day was relatively short, caused by the tide times and Jen’s need to prepare herself for the BCU test beginning tomorrow. We were on the water for about 3 hours. The day was sunny beginning with only a mild wind from the southeast (at our backs). The wind picked up once we rounded the Head, however, only to ~ Force 3 and still only from the side. The air temperature was mild, the water is still very cold. We launched at 11 AM starting at Skirza ~3-1/2 miles south of Duncansby Head and followed the coastline north exploring cliffs and caves. Just as Jen stated in an earlier posting; there were caves you could drive a train through and yet another just meters away so narrow you could not paddle but had to ride the swell through (about 150 feet long). They both ended in the same large open chamber with the sun streaming in.

Next we moved on to the tidal race just off Duncansby Head. With the east flowing tide the North Sea flows rapidly around the Head, through the Pentland Firth, on into the Atlantic ocean which is just a few miles away. Thanks to Jake’s planning (part of his 5 star training) we hit the race at peak flow (~6+ knots). Duncansby Head is extended by large two vertical rocks, the second one called the ‘knee’. Due to reef and lower water level the passage inside the first rock was impassable so we rounded the first rock, stopping behind it in the nice clean eddy, then ferried out and played in the ‘upper’ part of the race. The race was the best I have ever been in with very nice clean waves at the upper edge providing long smooth rides requiring only stern rudder for control. We played there for a bit occasionally dropping in the eddy for a rest, then out into the race for more fun.

Next we shot down between the ‘knee’ and the Head and indeed it seemed like the North Sea was trying to fit all of itself through this little slot. A strong side current bouncing to the inside of the knee forced you to track the lesser current running along the cliff edge. The meeting of those two currents produced a narrow width of explosive rolling waves (this is where Jake rolled yesterday) that we powered through then tucked into the ‘boiling’ eddy behind the knee. This positioned us to play in the lower race. The lower race had considerably bigger and suddenly breaking waves that were much more chaotic, not providing great rides but definitely producing adrenaline. I, myself ferried in for about 5 minutes, fatigued myself (I also don’t fit too well in the Romeny and am petitioning for a new boat tomorrow) and then pulled back into the eddy. Jake and Jen played out there for much longer; Jake in particular letting his ‘little kid’ out, repeatedly ferrying into the biggest and baddest sections. Towards the end of this bit, while Jan and I were sitting in the eddy talking and waiting for Jake to work out his ‘jones’, the birds on the cliffs above us all decided to take off at once. One barreled down over my shoulder landing just between us exploding into the water like a bowling ball and continued straight down into the depths. What a surprise that was!

After sating our adrenaline needs we rounded Duncansby Head and landed at John O’Groates which is considered the northern most point of contiguous Britain (even though Dunnet Head which is just a few miles west clearly reaches a bit further north). Regardless, Jake and I shuttled back to get the van, returning to load the kayaks, then visited a small maritime museum (mostly full of war time memorabilia and photos of wrecked ships in the Pentland Firth). Just as we were about to enter a souvenir shop we were asked by an older couple with hiking packs if we would mind taking their picture. It turned out that they had, just at that moment, finished walking up from Lands End which is ~1,000 miles south on the other end of Britain. They were delightful and seemed more interested in our exploits and plans than talking about their own just completed achievement.

Also arriving while we were loading up at John O’Groates was another BCU paddling crew up from England and also preparing for tomorrows test. We helped them unload their boats and talked only a short while as they planned to dash across Pentland Firth to Stroma island and back again – all during slack tide. One quickly understands that all boating plans are intricately tied to the tides and winds here. If you miss your ‘window’ you simply don’t go because you will never get there!

Jen and Jake are now ensconced with me in the Valley View B&B and have yet to come down from their room (is it the shower, the bed, room enough to stretch out your arms or lay out your clothes?). If they ever come down our plans are to run over to the Thurso Youth Hostel (the headquarters for the BCU event) to meet up with arriving paddlers and get the ‘lay of the land (or is it the sea?) for tomorrows start. We will also grab a bite to eat most likely at the hotel because that is the only place in town with a wireless internet connection (if you know the secret surfer password) to download this posting.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Finally in Thurso

It was a quick drive up from Edinburgh (~5-1/2 hours). The the second half of the drive runs along the North Sea often rising high above sea level with curvy roads that reminded me of Big Sur (but with rounded green scenery). The road finally turns east going up and over the moor to Thurso. Thurso is actually a small city but with an unusually small downtown. What I haven't seen mentioned yet is the fact that even this early in the year it stays light till nearly 10PM... and quite honestly it's not that cold (well at least today and it's only getting dark now).

I'm looking forward to getting on the water tomorrow and promise some photos. We have finalized our plans after studying the tide tables and have decided to start on the North Sea side at Skirza and run around Duncansby Head along the coastline pulling out at John O'Groats. A short, but I am told, spectacular paddle. Now that we have two vehicles a shuttle is possible. This will get us off the water early so Jen can get herself psyched up for her testing starting the next morning.

Regards - Thom

Thom arrives!

A beautiful sunny day heralded Thom's arrival in Thurso today. Jake and I caught up with him at about 6:30pm after a fantastic day on the water. We had a bit of a play in a tidal race, then circumnavigated Stroma. A strong current stopped us dead in our tracks heading north along the island so we stopped for lunch by an ancient cemetary. There was a small building in the cemetary - empty now, but maybe once a tomb? The date carved into a corner stone was 1677. I hope to download some kayaking photos tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Departing Edinburgh for Thurso

Having finished my conditioning late last night here in Edinburgh with a wee dram of 28 year old Craggenmore I'm off to Thurso thoroughly insulated from the cold. Jen and Jake's postings are just too exciting to resist getting up there and on the water.

I too have checked the forecast for the Thurso area and the weather is predicted to be sunny with mild winds for Friday, similar with a few clouds on Saturday, and conditions building a bit on Sunday with heavy fog (they call it gaar - I think) possible. Generally it appears a high pressure area is moving across bringing clearer weather but cooler air temperatures (supposed to be 0 degrees tonight, brrr - think warm thoughts for Jen and Jake in their van). If you are interested, the best weather site I have found is the British Meteorological Office at

Here is a swell and surf report. As you can see the swell is currently 8 feet and dropping off for the weekend. Note the wind direction is shifting as well... seems almost similar to our santa anna inversions in San Diego (without the heat) and wind speed is generally higher than the corresponding land wind speed report (as Jen indicated in a post earlier this week).

My Scottish friends are a bit concerned with the adventure but I have assured them that Jen and Jake will bring me back and I will see them once again and no worse for wear the following weekend. They keep asking if I am aware of the water conditions up north and I nod my head and take another sip of scotch. I do have the camera cable that Jen is seeking so you should get some 'on the water' pictures from her by this evening or Friday.

Regards - Thom

Another note from Jake

Ahhh. Jen finally took a break from the computer so now I get a chance to say hello. We're once again hanging out at the Royal Bar in Thurso having a couple drinks while I do some chart work and Jen checks on weather (which is looking better for the weekend) and e-mails from home. The bar happens to be the headquarters for a big surf contest that's in town so it's been a bit crowded but it's interesting to hear accents from all over the world.

Yesterday saw our second day on the water. We got a bit of a late start due to srong winds in the morning and by the time we started to approach Duncansby Head (the start of our planned island crossing) we realized that we'd spent a little too much time exploring the amazing sea caves and slot canyons we found along the way and had missed the good tide window we'd planned. So we ended up turning back with plans to hustle over to check out another spot. We never did make it back on the water. When we arrived back at the put-in the gentleman that lives in the house right there invited us in for sardine sandwiches and coffee. We were in a hurry (and honestly a little leery of sardine sandwiches) but we knew we'd be crazy to pass up a chance to experience real Scottish hospitality so we went inside. We ended up having a nice chat with Ronnie who wouldn't let us stop eating until we'd finished an entire platter of sandwiches he'd set out.

Today we had big plans to do the crossing we'd passed up on yesterday but when we woke to puring rain and winds rocking the van we already knew it was a no-go. We did end up driving over to a different spot Jen wanted to check out that thankfully gave us some protection from the wind. Once again the coastline was absolutely beautiful and we entertained ourselves on rock garden pourovers and slots while grazing sheep looked on and baaed their approval from the cliff tops high above. We didn't completely escape the wind and had to turn back a few miles shy of our destination due to the fact that the 20 knot plus winds were making it just no fun. There was a point where I watched waves breaking and washing up on a huge sloped rock. The little rivulets of water that normally flow back into the ocean as the wave subsides never really made it. Instead the water droplets were picked up by the wind and hurled up and over the far side of the rock in a misty spray. Pretty impressive.
The weather looks good for tomorrow so with any luck we'll have reports about our Stroma crossing and circumnavigation.

See you later,

From Jen again

I am so glad to know that I'm not the only one who immediately thinks about strippers when I hear the word "pasties"! I almost said something, but I was afraid people would think I'm strange. Just so you know, the food item is not pronounced the same as the stripper thing....the "a" is pronounced like "cat". Nevertheless, I have a hard time stiffling a giggle every time Jake talks about his mom's great pasties (sorry Lynn!).

Ok, enough of that. A steady rain and howling winds kept us in our snug bed late this morning. Our planned trip wasn't going to work out so well with 25 kts of wind, so we drove down the coast to try something else and found more magical caves and rock gardens and sea stacks. Hobbits poked their heads out from Hobbit holes and sea monsters swam past. I'll be able to download some photos off my camera when Thom arrives tomorrow, I hope. Until then, we're stuck with land photos.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

From Jen

We had a short day on the water today but it was stunning! All the best European cathedrals are right on the water and very few are lucky enough to see them. I hope some of my photos turn out, but I know they won’t be able to reveal the magnitude of the caves and slots we paddled through today. The most impressive was a set of three closely spaced, parallel passageways straight into vertical cliffs for 100 yards. The first passageway was open to the sky and as wide as road. The next was roofed and so narrow you couldn’t paddle. The third was also roofed and big enough to drive a freight train through. Just stunning! Many other caves and passageways riddled this stretch of coast and we were thoroughly distracted from our goal of reaching Stroma and rounding her north end before the tide turned. When it became clear we wouldn’t make it, we turned back to try a different stretch of coast. We’d parked at the top of a slipway next to a house and the owner had chatted with us before we left. Everyone wants to be sure we know that Pentland Firth is the most dangerous and treacherous piece of water in the UK (maybe the world!). Anyway, Ronny invited us in for coffee and sardine sandwiches for lunch. We got a history lesson and heard tales from the days of the Vikings, pirates, and Inuits washed up in their kayaks. His house was once occupied by a seaman who used to pilot ships through the treacherous Firth. If the weather was fair enough, the pilot would be dropped off on the other side - about 30 miles - to walk home. If the weather was poor, he'd be stuck on board until the ship reached America where he'd work until he found passage back. The sandwiches were much yummier than they sound (or maybe we were just hungry).

Jake shopped this afternoon while I napped. He returned with the “pasties” he’s been hoping to find. Apparently his mom used to make these things – bread dough stuffed with meat, potatoes, and cabbage - and he’s been hoping to try a traditional pasty here, where the recipe originated. We tried one the other day, but it wasn’t “authentic” in Jake’s view. “How will you know when you get an authentic one?” I ask. “Because it’ll be like my mom’s.” These turned out to be close enough.

We walked around town which I thought would take 20 minutes and took about 8. We’re hanging out in the local Pubs in the evening with emails and navigation homework. I’m adapting to this lifestyle pretty quickly. Cheers!

A Post From Thom

Now your most recent posting describes the Scotland I have come to know and love. For just a bit I thought maybe you two had taken the wrong turn and ended in Fiji!

Your description of the wind and waves was perfect. It's not as though the wave tops are cresting your bow and flying in your face but rather they are separated from the water surface itself and have a life and direction of their own (always in your face). After reading that post I did go out of my way to pick up that extra storm cag and squeeze it in the suitcase.

I have successfully adjusted my plans to get up to Thurso late Thursday afternoon. It meant sacrificing the Royal Gardens walkabout so I could move up my scotch conditioning dinner to Wednesday night. Sometimes one has to sacrifice! I am hoping the weather permits getting on the water Friday to help prepare for the weekend.

Well I'm off to the airport and will see you on your side of the 'pond' in a few days.

Regards - Thom

p.s. I stopped by the shop and Eddie sends his love. He's missing you and seemed to be moping about and getting a bit fatter in your absence (is that possible?). When I suggested exercise he simply rolled over to get his tummy scratched.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Post from Jen

Shorts and sunscreen should be fine, Thom (with enough whiskey you won't notice the rain and cold!). We had a wonderful day on the water! We paddled less than 2 miles across to Stroma, a pretty little island dotted with ancient stone houses that weren't entirely abandoned until the 1960's. Just about as 'Scotland' as one could imagine. The tide races were friendly for our first trip (thank goodness because the 'Coast Pilot' for the area, not to mention the advice of some people who've been here, had me more than a little worried). Neap tides and fair weather made for a glorious trip. Then the ominous clouds. Wind against tide and lumpy bumpy seas all the way back and me hoping I hadn't called it too late. But we made landfall in fine fashion and the weather hadn't gotten ugly enough yet, so we toodled down the coast a bit longer. It got nearly ugly enough as we turned around and soon found ourselves clawing our way into a force 8 (30mph) headwind. Weather reports claim it was force 7 but that's from some nerd in an office somewhere! It took us an hour to paddle a mile (normally an efforless 15 minutes). I was disappointed that this wasn't accompanied by driving rain. Scotland is letting me down. It did rain - after we were snug in our van eating a hot dinner. Hope the breezes are fair and gentle wherever you are!

Our first day on the water (from Jake)

Hey Thom, don't put your cold weather clothes away yet! We had our first day on the water along with our first taste of what the weather CAN be around here. Lively to say the least.

We launched from a ferry dock in Gills Bay and did a mile and a half crossing to the Island of Stroma. The tide was flowing at a tolerable two or three knots enough to give me a good lesson on finding good ranges and navigating in moving water. We did go up coast (West) a bit to take a quick look at the "Merry Men of May" tidal race and even with a relatively mild tidal flow it was already lively. The crossing was good and we tucked into a tiny breakwater (harbor) on the south end of the island and pulled our boats out for a break. After walking a few hundred yards (looking for a spot free of sheep droppings to sit down) we make quick work of our PBJ sandwiches and tea. In fair skies and a pleasant breeze we entertained the idea of working our way down the East side of the island to it's Northern end just to scout things out. About then the wind started to build and we decided it would be a good idea to just head back. Considering the conditions of the water on the way back (2-3 foot sloppy seas) I think we made the right choice. Upon reaching shore we headed down wind and up current past our put-in back up to the Merry Men of May to re-scout some rock hopping areas in the now deeper water with the rising tide. It was when we turned around to paddle back that the wind really started to howl. I can't remember a time when I worked harder to paddle into the wind. We earned every foot of headway we made, The waves weren't big but the chop and slop sent spray after spray into our faces to add to the drizzly rain that was starting to fall. We made it back really no worse for wear, just very hungry and very glad we didn't screw around on the island any longer than we had.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we plan on getting a much earlier start to do a re-crossing and circumnavigation of the island.

We'll let you know how it goes.
Post from Thom

Jen it's good to hear the weather is balmy and you are running about in a T shirt. I was having trouble stuffing all this foul weather gear into my suitcase (or is that 2 suitcases?). Your good news has me changing strategies and I have now repacked with one pair of shorts and a tank top along with two tubes of sunscreen.

The pictures are great and I noticed there aren't even whitecaps on the water. Clearly I was much more concerned about the conditions than I needed to be. In that picture of you on the bluff at Duncansby Head I don't see a hair out of place so apparently wind is not an issue either.

Any recomendations regarding how we should meet up on Friday. It's about a 6-1/2 hour drive from Edinburgh (add just a bit of time for a bite to eat). I'll depart early in order to arrive in Thurso ~mid-afternoon. You have my UK phone number, however, I have no method for contacting you. A check-in at the B&B and if possible a short time on the water to acclimate to the boat would be nice.

Regards - Thom

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Another Photo

Me at Duncansby Head scouting some of the places I'm going to make Thom paddle!

Jake's Castle

An early morning start today gave us time to swing by this amazing castle just before sunrise. Castles seem to be just about everywhere around here, many not as well preserved as this one.

Some photos

This is our home away from home - Justine's awesome van and her rather distinctive kayaks! We're just minutes away from the furthest north point on the UK mainland. Those are the Orkney Islands in the distance.

Arival in Thurso!

Jen and Jake have finally made it to the northern most point in the mainland UK! I'm wearing a t-shirt at the moment - Thom pay close attention! Of course, it might have to do with the fact that they've turned the heat up so high to combat the cold. Really though, it's not that cold most of the time! We've only have a bit of rain and the wind is tolerable. It'll probably get much, much worse.

Our trip began Thursday at 5am in San Diego. We finally landed in Manchester, England at 7am on Friday. We then took the train to Bangor, Wales where Fiona picked us up at about noon. She took us to a beautiful slate quarry where we stretched our legs and had lamb pasties and sausage rolls for lunch. Fiona dropped us off at Justine Curgenven's house (the film maker who made "This Is The Sea I, II, and III". She VERY kindly loaned us her van and a few kayaks for our trip since she's in New Zealand at the moment. So we loaded our unbelievable amounts of crap into the van and headed into Holyhead on Anglessey where we dropped by Nigel Dennis' place to say Hi and grab one more kayak. We'll end our trip here at Nigel's symposium in about 2 weeks. Since Justine's van has a stove, etc., we shopped and parked out by South Stack on Holyhead to camp for the night. The next moring, we started driving north and made great time. We finally stopped to sleep only a couple of hours shy of Thurso so we could finish the trip in the daylight. We arrived at the northern coast about 7am Sunday morning and are getting our bearings.

We've found the van to be exceptional as far as accomodations go! Plenty of storage for all our things, a cozy bed, a stove, and would you believe it, a 12 volt "sandwich toaster" that plugs into the cigarette lighter! While I drove, Jake toasted crumpets! I think Thom under estimates our very civilized form of travel!

The coastline is beautiful and not too rough just now. I'm looking forward to paddling tomorrow, but today has been primarily driving and walking and getting to know the place a bit.

We'll have internet access almost daily, so we'll keep posting! Thanks for the comments! It's nice to know we're not alone!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

And hello from Thom. I suppose since Jen and Jake have now disappeared into Wales, yet to be heard from, I'll fill in for a day.

I too am getting excited about heading off to Scotland. It's a country I love. I travel there every year about this time to attend a gemmological conference in Perth. After Jen's BCU exam in Thurso, weather permitting, we hope to paddle around a bit in the Orkneys (we will ferry over) and then paddle sweet spots along the west coast of Scotland as we head back south. Jake also hopes to bag a Monroe ( and Jen and I support the idea. After that I'll leave Jake and Jen and head east to Perth to give a lecture and meet up with my gemmological family for the weekend.

Being a bit older (and I like to think wiser) my remaining travel, training, and preparation schedule leading up to Thurso differs a bit from Jen and Jake. I depart from San Diego on this coming Tuesday and fly directly into Edinburgh where I'll go straight from the airport to bed at a friends house, not to arise till I damn well feel like it. Experience tells me that after ~24 hours of relaxing I'll be ready to stretch my legs so I hope to get over to the Royal Botanical Gardens for a walkabout on Thursday. After the vigorous exercise of ambling about the gardens I'll then move on to the next step of my plan; preparing for the cold (water temperature of 9 degrees C - Geez - whose idea was this?). That's right - we have scheduled dinner at the Royal Scottish Malt Whiskey Society for that evening. I promise you that I will be most diligent regarding my preparation for the upcoming cold (I feel warmer already).

By then I will have toughened myself up for the BCU challenge and will drive up to Thurso leaving Edinburgh early Friday morning in order to meet up with Jen and Jake that afternoon. Their job, as you know, is to have scouted out the coastline, carefully marking on the map all the dangerous spots for me to avoid. I rarely have leverage on the water with Jen - but in this case if I look good, then Jen looks good.

It became clear early on that Jake and Jen (Jen in particular) needed assistance learning how to 'travel well'. Jen, of course, was originally talking of she and Jake sleeping in a van and me in a tent! Clearly she needed help getting a grip regarding the weather of Northern Scotland in April (I'm getting cold just thinking about it). Naturally I am here to help so I did some research and arranged for us to lodge at Valley View B&B ( for our three nights in Thurso. If you bother to visit the site you will notice that there are beds, and showers, and... well heat! But even better our breakfast (and box lunches) will be prepared by Chef Steven, the only holder of the coveted AA rosette cooking award in the county (I'm feeling warmer already).

I'm working on lodging for the Orkneys and think I have just the right place with heat, direct access to the waters edge, another award winning breakfast and this one even does dinners on request. However, convincing Jen to relax in the lap of comfort takes time. You can help by posting your supporting comments here for her to read.

I'll let you know how my plans work out. Regards - Thom

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hello from Jake - Jen and I thought it might be interesting if Thom and I also do a few posts on her blog, so folks might see what we're up to from a few different perspectives, so here goes. For those of you who don't know me I'm her boyfriend and one of the, very lucky, long-term students going along to take part in her level five assessment.

Right now it's six hours and fifteen minutes till we have to have ourselves to the airport for a 6:20 departure. Jen's currently taking a break, but I'm sure she'll be up the rest of the night taking care of last minute kayak shop organization.

Jen surprised me on this trip by being pretty much completely packed two nights before we're due to take off. This time it's me running around at the last hour buying batteries, travel munchies for the long flight, and a travel sized bottle of shaving cream (I hardly ever remember to shave here but somehow it seemed necessary) . To say I'm excited is an understatement, it's to the point where I hardly have an appetite. Jen seems a little tense but nowhere near as bad as one might expect. I think as soon as the airplanes wheels touch down she'll be able to relax a lot.

This is the first time overseas for me, to many peoples surprise I got my first passport just for this trip. I've had to explain to them that traditionally in the place where I grew up world travel was done mostly by people who were being sent off to fight wars. I can't wait to experience the culture, people, and food of a completely new place. Of course many will say geeze man you're only going to Scotland, it's not THAT different, they even mostly speak english. To that I say pick up a map or chart and try to read the place names, and you thought Stachovak was spelled strange. I've always been able to understand most of what a Brit or Scott said to me, but when they talk to each other, forget it.

Kayaking will be the main focus on this trip, Jen's assessment and our own paddles, but I'm also looking forward to doing some hiking, and perhaps touring a scotch distillery to see where my dad's favorite drink comes from. In addition, as strange as it sounds, (if I get a chance) I'd like to snoop around a home construction site just to see how things are put together over there. I guess half a lifetime of building and designing houses just makes me interested. Of course I'm going to have to sample a pasty while we are there if anything just to see how they compare to the ones my mom makes.

That's all for now, I've got to get these new batteries in my camera.


Monday, April 16, 2007

What the test will be like

The Level 5 Assessment is a two day test of my ability to coach sea kayakers. There are 2 other candidates taking the test, as well as 2 whitewater kayakers and one surf kayaker. Each assessment is a very individual experience. On the first day, I coach 2-3 students I have never met before. Depending on what those students want to learn or improve, I can choose any venue within a reasonable distance of our base. An assessor will spend the day with me and will primarily just watch. He's not permitted to "intervene" by making suggestions, or judgements during the day, but he can ask questions and I can talk to him. On the second day, I get asigned a different assor who watches while I coach 2 students that I have been working with for at least 6 months (my "long term students"). Aside to subjecting themselves to my abuse for many months now, these hardy and generous souls have agreed to go to northernmost Scotland with me. I have to confess that I kept the destination secret until it was too late to back out. I may have mentioned Fiji from time to time during our training sessions. They are Thom Underwood and Jake Stachovak and I couldn't be undertaking this adventure without them! They'll be posting here too so you can get their perspective.

A number of others embarked on this process with me many months ago as part of a larger group of long term students and I owe them a big debt too for supporting me and subjecting themselves to all manner of experimentation and sea states.

2 days left until departure!

Monday, April 9, 2007

Thurso, Scotland

I'll be taking the Big Test near Thurso, Scotland - the northern most town on the UK mainland. Reports are that it's cold and wet. The surfers among you will be jealous of the surf - it's famous for a fast break onto a shallow reef. There are also fast tidal races and lots of wind. I've included a few links so you can get a feel for what it will be like. There are some spectacular photos on Doug Houghton's website (see "links" section).

We'll go to the Orkney Islands afterwards for a few days of R&R, paddling, and sight seeing before ending up in Anglessey Wales for Nigel Dennis' annual Sea Symposium.

Friday, April 6, 2007


If you're reading this blog, you probably already have some idea that I'm trying to pass a test. You also probably have no idea what the test is about since it's a bit obscure. I'll try to shed some light....

As a professional kayak instructor, I've been following an internationally recognized certification scheme for kayak coaches. The governing body is called the British Canoe Union, or BCU for short. I have already achieved the highest award for personal sea kayaking skills (5 Star), and I have achieved the rank of Level 4 sea kayak coach. I now seek to pass my Level 5 coach award - the highest possible. To a very small group of kayak instructors in the world, this is a big deal.

If I pass the exam, I will be the first American (male OR female), to attain this award. There are perhaps only 25 or so Level 5 sea kayak coaches in the world (only 3 of those are women). My "tutor", Fiona Whitehead (more on her later), was the last person to pass the exam and that was about 3 years ago. When I asked her how many had taken the exam since then (hoping the answer would be "none") she said, "oh, 6 or 7". So, the standard is quite high and it will be a considerable accomplishment if I pass. If I don't, I will be among the ranks of many excellent coaches who aren't quite among the best in the world yet!

Countdown to Scotland

It's two weeks until I leave for Scotland and my Big Test. I'll be able to post to this blog from Scotland and I thought people might be interested in following the progress. This also seems like a good place to tell you a little more about what it is I'm trying to accomplish. If you're interested, stay tuned!